A link between increased immigration and increased crime?

While researching the cause of the apparent (as Shonk noted, it may be an artifact of bad stats) spike in the homicide rate in the early 1900s, the tremendous immigration of that first decade popped out as a possible cause. I googled to find out what has been said about that, and discovered papers like this.

What is interesting is that researchers have been purporting to answer the question of whether a high rate of immigration might lead to a surge in crime, but in fact seem to be answering the question "Are immigrants more likely to be criminals than the native born?" The paper linked to above discusses earlier studies, and they all seem to have proceeded in the same way, by examining incarceration rates for immigrants versus natives, to see if immigrants are more likely to be criminals.

But that is only one possible way in which a high immigration rate might cause a high crime rate. And that worry should not be discounted: for instance, if the United Kingdom discovered that hordes of American police officers were migrating there, they might want to close the border.

However, there is an entirely different vector of disturbance by which an increase in immigration might cause an increase in crime: there are culture-specific customs for smoothing over conflicts before they turn violent, and natives and recent immigrants are not likely to share those customs.

Let me share a memory: it was my first weekend living in London. At my local pub, I met a Jamaican bloke. After we talked for a while, he said, "I'm going to a dance club: why don't you come along?" It seemed only polite to acquiesce, and so off we went in a cab to God knows where.

I found myself in a West Indian night club in which I was just about the only white chap. At one point, as I stood in line to get a drink, a dread next to me informed me, "M' rolling a spliff: don't bump me!"

Well, not ten seconds later, a very drunk patron crashed into me, throwing me... you guessed it, right into the dread. Knocking his half-rolled spliff to the floor. He immediately glared at me, and violence was in the offing.

Luckily, I had spent a lot of time the previous decade-and-a-half around Jamaicans, so instead of trying to explain how "It's not my fault," I looked him in the eye and said, "I'm buying your drinks tonight."

"Cool, cool," he replied, and all was fine.

But if this had happened to me a fifteen years earlier, I almost certainly would have responded differently, and probably would have found myself on the floor soon thereafter, perhaps digesting a bullet.

In the "inability-to-peacefully-resolve-conflict" model of increased immigration leading to increased crime, immigrants need not be more criminally inclined than the native-born: they might even be less so. And the incarceration rates for immigrants and the native-born need not differ: instead, they would both rise together, as conflicts that, had they involved two members of either culture, would have been resolved peacefully, instead escalate into violence through mutual misunderstanding.

It is obvious to me that some problems of this sort will arise whenever culturally different populations newly mingle. How pervasive they are is an empirical matter which I haven't researched: but, it seems*, neither have the people seriously studying this area.

* I am just going but what I read in that one paper linked to above, but, as I mentioned, the authors cite earlier studies, and those seem to use the same method. However, if I wanted to make a blanket statement about this, and remove the "seems," I would have to do much more research.

21 comments:

  1. Good point. However, I think that cities with large immigrant populations also tend to have lower crime rates (El Paso, for example, is the safest American big city). So I'm not sure if the effect is so large.

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    1. El Paso is upwards of 80% Hispanic. It is actually less diverse than the US as a whole.

      So yeah, the effect might break down as you approach completely replacing one population with another...

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    2. Yes, Scott is right: we now have a fairly uniform culture of immigrants. The point is not about immigrants versus native-born: it is about culture clashes leading to violence.

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  2. I don't understand the point of your anecdote. If I read you correctly, you are implying that if you had been pushed into an Englishman instead, a fight would not have ensued if you plead with him that it wasn't your fault. But because of something having to do with Jamaican culture, it doesn't matter whether you were pushed or not, you have to make financial or alcoholic reparations in this situation - unless you want to risk "digesting a bullet".

    If this is indeed what you mean, you must surely realize that the suggestion that a Jamaican is more likely to make you digest a bullet for this kind of perceived insult is going to be taken by almost everyone to be a sign that they have a greater tendency to commit crimes.

    Unless you are arguing that it would not be a crime in their culture or something. I'm genuinely at a loss to interpret your post, help me out.

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    1. I think he is saying that "Let me buy you drinks tonight." is an easier way saying "It's not my fault.". And besides, the guy was lighting up something to smoke.

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    2. But that doesn't address the point Samson. Gene is suggesting there is some factor at work *other* than a higher propensity for violence. But it looks like he is just assuaging someone with that higher propensity. Same cause.

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    3. I am very puzzled by your puzzlement, John. The point of my post is that mutual incomprehension to to different cultural practices can result in violence. I then related a story ( happen to be the first one that came into my head) showing how a situation that likely would have turned violent if it had occurred 15 years before, when I was ignorant of culture X, Instead was defused as I had spent a long time learning the culture in question.

      You seem to be getting caught up in evaluating whether one cultures reaction to the situation is better or worse than another cultures. Well, maybe it is, but that has nothing whatsoever to do with the point I am making. Let us say that the people of Xanadu shoot anyone who waves at them with their left hand. You might think this is an utterly barbaric practice, and you might be right. But if you go to Xanadu and you want to avoid getting shot, wave with your right hand. I am discussing the latter point, and not the former.

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    4. "Gene is suggesting there is some factor at work *other* than a higher propensity for violence."

      Huh? I am not talking about "factors at work" or "propensities for violence" or anything of the sort. I am saying that people who share a customary way of resolving disputes are less likely to have them escalate into violence than people who do not.

      But perhaps some people are so anxious to negatively evaluate some other culture that this point completely eludes them.

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    5. In fact, John and Ken seem anxious to illustrate my point. There I was, one of two or three people not from the west Indies in a pact West Indian night club, and they seem offended that when a situation that might have escalated into violence arose, I I defused it to way a West Indian would. I guess they would rather fight than drop any of their cultural assumptions. Well, let me recommend you not head into situations like the one I was in.

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    6. "If I read you correctly, you are implying that if you had been pushed into an Englishman instead, a fight would not have ensued if you plead with him that it wasn't your fault."

      And by the way, my dear cultural imperialists, it is PLENTY easy to get into a pub brawl with an Englishman!

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    7. True that, Gene! My father, a former English Sergeant Major, is normally calm and very affable. Despite this, if he is agitated in a meaningful way (i.e., bumped in a pub) he will likely use his ham sized fists to pummel the other fellow.

      Humorously, I cannot tell a qualitative difference between him and the other non-military English blokes from my family!

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    8. Gene, you are attempting to offer another explanation for an increased rate of crime besides "immigrants are more criminal". The distinction that you are trying to make is between immigrants being more criminal across all environments and immigrants potentially being only more criminal when exposed to another culture which does not understand it (as in the case of West Indians in Britain). Right?

      My objection was that from a Western point of view this is a moot point. Bringing people over who will commit more crimes when exposed to Western culture are... more criminal in Western cultures. Obviously...

      And in any case I'm rather skeptical of your argument. You raise the possibility that some immigrants may only be more criminal in Western environments and offer an illustrative anecdote, but to be complete you would have to compare it to a similar situation in West Indian societies. Is there really less criminality there? I'd be rather dubious about such a claim.

      And I didn't say I would rather fight. In the first place, I wouldn't be spending any time in a West Indian night club. In the second, if I found myself there I would walk out if I ever felt I was in danger. Why stick around if I risk digesting a bullet in the event of an unfortunate, defensive, visceral reaction on my part?

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    9. John, you have invented in your head all sorts of extraneous stuff related to what I'm saying, but that is not what I am saying. I am saying cultural misunderstandings can escalate into violence. Period. Everything else in your comment, you added on yourself.

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    10. Gene, you said exactly that the claim that immigrants were more criminally prone was "is only one possible way in which a high immigration rate might cause a high crime rate" before going on to suggest what you saw as another possible mechanism: cultural misunderstandings. Meaning you believe your explanation to not be included in the first. So what am I adding?

      And I explained a very simple way in which you could test your idea statistically.

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    11. And John, you've totally missed the point that *I* was the immigrant here!

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    12. "So what am I adding?"

      Well, everything except what that comment includes.

      "And I explained a very simple way in which you could test your idea statistically."

      And we need to test it, because it is *so* unlikely that cultural misunderstanding can lead to violence!

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    13. <<"So what am I adding?"

      Well, everything except what that comment includes.>>

      A tautological, slippery answer.

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    14. Gene's post:

      ' "Are immigrants more likely to be criminals than the native born?" ...
      But that is only one possible way in which a high immigration rate might cause a high crime rate.
      However, there is an entirely different vector of disturbance by which an increase in immigration might cause an increase in crime '

      Gene now: 'Huh? I am not talking about "factors at work" ... or anything of the sort.'

      You two need to chat.

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  3. But that is only one possible way in which a high immigration rate might cause a high crime rate. And that worry should not be discounted: for instance, if the United Kingdom discovered that hordes of American police officers were migrating there, they might want to close the border.

    If I were a Brit I'd still probably say "No immigration quotas." and wouldn't bother arguing the statistics. But I'm a though-the-world-may-perish kind of guy and would be more willing to allow two cultures to plunge into tense relations. Would that count as the kind of abstract notions of justice that you agitate against?

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    1. This post is discussing the ways in which we might measure whether or not immigration can increase violence. It is not about whether or not we should allow it anyway.

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  4. I would not have thought of this particular mechanism. Interesting.

    The general point is probably more important, though -- that no particular mechanism is implied. There are lots of ways to imagine problems and strains emerging that do not point the finger at anyone in particular. The point is (in keeping with your general anti-rationalist family of arguments) that introducing sweeping changes into highly complex systems should be expected to cause problems in not-necessarily predictable ways.

    I would also point out what I think is a data point strongly supporting your argument -- you see a similar increase with both waves of immigration, despite the fact that the sources of immigrants were quite a bit different between the two periods.

    Which implies that it is a general phenomenon that is not specific to the people coming over.

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